The Jeremiah writes a letter, a prophesy, to his people in exile, deported to Babylon, living among their enemies—a letter as guidance on how to survive. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles… ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce’ ” (Jeremiah 29:4-5).
Build houses. Plant gardens. That’s how to live in a land not their own.
On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on an abandoned lot, James picks through a crumbling building, carefully selecting rubble, jagged bricks and chunks of concrete, to make a border for the deserted plot of earth he had dug into an oval pond, six inches deep, in the center of his garden. He lined the pond with plastic garbage bags and filled it with water from a nearby fire hydrant. He found a chair along the street, someone’s trash — one leg was missing, so he sawed off the other three and nailed it to a wooden palette at the head of the pond, there he sits, crossing his legs, and lights a cigarette as he takes it all in. Nearby, James set up a tent for a home, and a collection of garden tools, and a vegetable garden planted with corn and tomatoes.[i]
“Build houses… Plant gardens…”
In another part of New York City, Hector was evicted from Tompkins Square Park, so he built a one-room shack on a vacant lot off East Fourth Street.The entrance from an alley opens up into a courtyard garden, where he sits and reads and visits with friends, entertaining guests. He had laid out a path through his courtyard, made from scavenged bricks, curving around an inflatable palm tree, around a crumbling statue of a seated child. “I carry all these things here myself,” Hector says, as he points to the bricks, the tree, the statute, “from the street, from everywhere, found them on Eighth Avenue, First Avenue. I find it, I take it — little by little, for more than two years now.”[ii]
“Build houses… Plant gardens…” Jeremiah says.
Diana Balmori and Margaret Mortan invite us into these worlds of makeshift houses and gardens in New York City, in their book of photographs called, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives. They offer glimpses of worlds within our world, hidden down alleys, under highways, among urban ruins — unexpected dwellings, built by exiles, a long way from their birthplaces in South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Texas.
The photographs show the resilience of survival — of building houses, planting flowers, and making homes, of assembling gardens of found objects, making space in a desolate world for life to happen, for relationships, for work and play, for daydreaming.
“Build houses… Plant gardens…” Jeremiah writes in his letter to his friends in exile, in Babylon, a long way from their birthplaces, a long way from Jerusalem, nearly a thousand wandering miles across the desert. They are living where they do not want to be. They want to go back to the land of their ancestors, back to their homeland. Their dreams and prayers return their minds to Jerusalem, even while their bodies are stuck in Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon,” we hear them pray in Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” They sing their prayer, their dreams: “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
But Jeremiah, in his letter, shifts their focus—drawing them away from nostalgic visions of the past, calling them away from their homesickness. Jeremiah pulls their minds from Jerusalem, and gives them a new prayer — not for Jerusalem, not for the peace of Jerusalem, but a prayer for the peace of Babylon. “Pray for the welfare of Babylon,” he tells them, “for in Babylon’s peace you will find your peace.” They are supposed to find their welfare, God’s peace, in Babylon now, in exile, in a harsh land, in an unfamiliar culture, among an unfriendly people, a suspicious host nation far away from where they want to be.
“Pray to the Lord on its behalf,” Jeremiah says, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).[iii] It’s a devastating prayer, a soul-crushing prayer, because with it their dreams of return are squelched. Instead, the Jews in Babylon are told to pray for the people who hold them captive. They have already been told in Leviticus 19 to love their neighbors, but that was only for their own people, their kin, their nation, not foreigners, not enemies: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,” God commands in Leviticus, “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[iv]
Now, in Jeremiah, God expands the command to include enemy peoples, their gentile conquerors, to pray for Babylonia to flourish, to flourish as a people — to pray for their welfare, for their peace, and somehow God’s people are supposed to find their own peace with them, with their enemies, enemies of the rest of the world. Babylon is a world power with enemies near and far, a global powerhouse whose influence stretches across the known land, conquering and displacing a multitude of peoples. The Jews were one of the many who called the Babylonian empire their enemy.
And now, living in the heart of the beast, Jeremiah tells them to make a home, to make peace — as he puts it, to seek their welfare and pray to God on their behalf, for in their welfare you will find your own.
For Jeremiah, human resilience becomes resistance, existence is resistence — the power of life to go on, even under the most inhospitable conditions: For threatened populations to build houses and plant gardens, no matter where they find themselves, to use what’s available to nurture a place for hope to grow — to become scavengers, reusing unwanted materials, found objects, to build a habitat for life, for peace — for neighbors and enemies alike, for neighbors who are also enemies: Pray for their peace, seek their welfare, Jeremiah says.
To build and to plant, to make a home in this world for threatened life, a shelter in abandoned corners of this world, like those urban gardens in New York City, vulnerable people sustaining themselves by throwing together shelters, digging ponds, and making gardens — ways of offering the possibility of goodness, a testimony of something beautiful, endangered lives becoming testimonies of hope, of peace.
This has been the story from the beginning, from the book of Genesis, when Eve and Adam found themselves exiled from their home, from the garden, and had to learn to build and plant, to make a way through lands and peoples, some more hospitable than others, and to learn, in each new situation, in each new environment, how to be a blessing to the nations. As God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred… to the land I will show you… and in you all the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18).
In the middle of the federal prison I visit, at the center of the compound, between the housing units, there’s a plot of lawn with sidewalks running through it. The prisoners are not allowed to spend time out there, enjoying the grass, the sun, the open space, but they do get to walk the sidewalks to get from their bunks to the dinning hall or the chapel or to the garment factory where they sow uniforms for the armed forces. At the corners of the sidewalks, in the spring there are patches with white and purple phloxes, baptisias, tulips, and daffodils, witch hazel and forsythia alight with yellow flowers.
Over the months teaching at that facility, I got to know the gardener. He was a student in my class, a prisoner who had been there for over a decade. He told me that over the years he noticed flowing plants sneaking their way through the layers of razor-wire fences, trespassing into the compound, and he somehow convinced the prison administration to let him transplant the flowers, making a home for them in the middle of the prison, glimpses of bright life, beauty that defies the gloom of concrete and fences and iron gates, gardening as a testimony of hope, perhaps, hope as the unmasking of the cold violence of that place,the calling of hope as exposing the hidden violences of our lives in the heart of Babylon, sparking imaginations to find other ways to be, here, in this place, in this land, among this people.
“Build houses… plant gardens.” Become scavengers, using whatever you may find along the way, for life to happen wherever you find yourself, building and planting testimonies of beauty, of goodness, of hope, even in the desolation of exile—singing songs in this foreign land, by the rivers of Babylon, doing what needs to be done for God’s people, for neighbors and strangers and enemies, near and far, all of whom are God’s beloved children. We do what needs to be done for others to survive, because as Irenaeus said, the glory of God is the human being, fully alive.
[i] This paragraph is a mashup of quotations and paraphrasing from Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale University Press, 1993): http://margaretmorton.com/artist/transitory_gardens.html
[ii] This paragraph is also a mashup of quotations and paraphrasing from Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale University Press, 1993): http://margaretmorton.com/artist/transitory_gardens.html
[iii] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah: A Fresh Reading: “For now put aside the prayer of Psalm 122:6, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!’ Learn a new prayer, ‘Pray for the peace of Babylon!’ for in Babylon’s peace you will find your peace” (110).
[iv] I’m indebted to Melissa Florer-Bixler’s sermon at Raleigh Mennonite Church on November 26, 2017, for the connecting Jeremiah 29 to Leviticus 19.